Early on in my career, after I moved back to Toronto from studying at The University of Western Ontario, which is now known as Western University, I quickly realized that there was a lot of competition amongst photographers, cinematographers, and artists of all kinds in Toronto and that learning strictly through trial and error would not be enough for my career to progress in a way that was sustainable, financially or otherwise.

At the time, I was primarily driven by ambition, testosterone, adrenaline, and ego more so than wisdom, but I still had enough wisdom to seek out mentorship. I was, and still am a maximizer when it comes to mentorship and my career, and many other aspects of my life, based on the psychologist Barry Schwartz’s definition of a maximizer.

According to Schwartz, a maximizer is like a perfectionist — someone who needs to be assured that their decision was the best that could be made, after taking a wide-array of factors into consideration. The way a maximizer knows for certain is by consideration of all of the alternative decisions they can imagine. And although being a maximizer can be quite daunting, time-consuming, and energy-consuming, it comes with many upsides that led me to become a photojournalist intern at the Torstar Corporation — the parent company of the Toronto Star at the start of my career. Being a maximizer also led me to become one of Manifesto Community Projects’ first photographers, in addition to working as a production assistant for 235 Films months after I had decided to become a professional photographer that aspired to cultivate other skills in the media and art worlds. As such, during the beginning of my career, I began learning from the photography, journalism, film, television, and other media professionals and artists that I deemed to be the best of the best (in Toronto).

One of the most valuable and interesting aspects of being a production assistant at 235 Films was learning from, and observing true professionals like Randall “RT” Thorne, Davin Black, Simon Shohet, Julian “Director X” Lutz, and many others on various film sets, and I still carry many of the lessons that I learned through them to this day.

Director X was and still is exceptionally successful in his field, and years later, as I would see him at various parties throughout Toronto, I wondered how I could add value to his projects, especially since he seemed to have a handle on all of the work that he was creating, from large-scale installations to Drake music videos to television programming. 

As mentioned in his TED Talk “Message To The Man Who Shot Me” below, in 2015 Director X was shot at his own New Year’s Eve party in Toronto — a party that I had coincidentally planned on attending, and a party that included many of my colleagues and friends.

Director: X of Operation Prefrontal Cortex, Producer: Sara Basso of Operation Prefrontal Cortex, Photographer: Ajani Charles

I was shocked to learn that he was shot because I could have been at the same venue had I not changed my plans a few days prior, and because Director X and many other people at the party were, and still are invaluable members of Canada’s arts and entertainment worlds. Any number of people could have been killed that night. 

Unfortunately, I have been no stranger to gun violence and violence in general, and as I described in “232 Hours: How I Used The Calm App To Cultivate Mindfulness In My Career”, many people within my network have been murdered in their twenties, I have been in very close proximity to nightclub stabbings and shootings, and I narrowly missed being a witness or casualty of the infamous Toronto van attack by five minutes. Furthermore, a year ago, Toronto was experiencing its most violent summer on record at the time, but as reported by BlogTO this past August, “Toronto has already surpassed the number of shooting incidents we saw during the entirety of 2018″, making 2019 the most violent year in Toronto’s short history.

As recently as Saturday, October 20, 2019, a man is dead after a shooting in the city’s west, and since Director X is a man of action, instead of lamenting over the violence that he has been subjected to and that Toronto has been subjected to, he decided to create a viable, long-term solution in the wake of an incalculable number of traumatic events. That solution manifested when he became the co-founder of Operation Prefrontal Cortex with his longtime friend Danell Adams (a few years ago).

Operation Prefrontal Cortex is a program harnessing the power of mindfulness and meditation to help reduce the incidents of gun and mass violence in Toronto. The name of the organization is brilliant, primarily because many studies have shown a connection between violent and aggressive behavior and the amygdala, the part of the brain that regulates emotions, particularly fear and anxiety, as well as the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for thinking, planning, reasoning, and decision making. These are the same parts of the brain that are impacted in children who have suffered abuse and neglect, such that their amygdalas are overactive, and their prefrontal cortexes are underactive. Operation Prefrontal Cortex aims to strengthen the prefrontal cortexes of children, teenagers, young adults, police officers, and first responders.

With that said, mindfulness practices have been scientifically proven to calm the amygdala and strengthen the prefrontal cortex and have already been successfully rolled out in a variety of institutions, including schools and prisons around the world. 

And so, this past spring, more than a decade after I worked as a production assistant for 235 Films, an opportunity to work with Director X again presented itself, as I messaged the Operation Prefrontal Cortex Instagram profile with the specific aim of adding value to the organization.

Educator: Heidi Bornstein of Mindfulness Everyday, Educator: Martin Keltz of Mindfulness Everyday, Educator: Stephen Chadwick of Mindfulness Everyday, Photographer: Ajani Charles

Since sending that message, I have been working diligently with the team as a production manager, overseeing the management of Operation Prefrontal Cortex’s content marketing, and learning a lot.

Most recently, we have established a partnership with Mindfulness Everyday — a registered charitable organization that has assembled a dedicated team of educators with a wealth of experience in conducting mindfulness programs. Also, this past August, Director X educated the public on our organization and mission, while guiding numerous people through a meditation at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square, as part of the thirteenth annual Manifesto Festival, and our team also supported Director X in doing the same on a larger scale at Elevate Tech Festival, this past September.

To bring Operation Prefrontal Cortex to life by implementing our program in Toronto schools, community centers, and correctional facilities, and amongst police officers and first responders, our first step is to create a pilot program to bring mindfulness practices to schools within the Toronto District School Board. As such, we need the public’s help to raise $25,000 to fund the pilot in at least three schools (covering kindergarten to grade 12), and donations can be made through our GoFundMe.

As we undergo the necessary preparations for our pilot program, we encourage Torontonians to begin learning how to meditate through the Calm meditation app, and we also want to share the fact that the premium version of Calm is free for all school teachers. Furthermore, if you are not a school teacher and are interested in purchasing the premium version of Calm, use this link for a 25% discount that the Calm team has graciously offered my clients, colleagues, friends, family members, fans, and others that are interested in my work.

Until Operation Prefrontal Cortex is implemented city-wide, the Calm app can be incredibly beneficial to the mitigation of stress, disillusionment, and violent impulses amongst teachers students, police officers, and first responders in Toronto and elsewhere. Simply informing teachers in Toronto of the Calm app and Operation Prefrontal Cortex is a step in the right direction.

Other forms of support that we encourage include phone calls and e-mails to Toronto city councilors, district trustees, and principals and teachers, specifically to request the implementation of Operation Prefrontal Cortex’s pilot program in their schools.

Producer: Sara Basso of Operation Prefrontal Cortex, Educator: Stephen Chadwick of Mindfulness Everyday, Photographer: Ajani Charles

Also, be sure to visit our website, follow us on Instagram if you are in support of Operation Prefrontal Cortex’s mission, and e-mail us if you have any questions, concerns, suggestions, or resources that may be beneficial to our value proposition. 

In the meantime, I am grateful for the vision, leadership, hard work, perseverance, and guidance demonstrated by Director X, Danell Adams, our producer Sara Basso, the Mindfulness Everyday team, including but not limited to Martin Keltz, Karin Lippert, Stephen Chadwick, and Heidi Bornstein, and everyone that has provided consulting, research, mentorship, words of encouragement, and other beneficial tools and resources to Operation Prefrontal Cortex.

I and the rest of the Operation Prefrontal Cortex team are also incredibly grateful to the consultative contributions of Mustafa El-Amin, the feedback and guidance of politicians like Jagmeet Singh and Mayor John Tory, our partners, including but not limited to Hoame and Array of Stars, Popp Rok, and all of our donors.

We are determined to save and improve many lives in Toronto and elsewhere through the unlimited power of meditation and community, over the course of many years and decades, and we invite you to join us on this important journey.

Operation Prefrontal Cortex, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Educator: Martin Keltz of Mindfulness Everyday, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Co-Founder: Danell Adams of Operation Prefrontal Cortex, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Director: X of Operation Prefrontal Cortex, Producer: Sara Basso of Operation Prefrontal Cortex, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Director: X of Operation Prefrontal Cortex, Producer: Sara Basso of Operation Prefrontal Cortex, Community Leader: Che Kothari of Manifesto Community Projects, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Producer: Sara Basso of Operation Prefrontal Cortex, Director: X of Operation Prefrontal Cortex, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Director: X of Operation Prefrontal Cortex, Producer: Sara Basso of Operation Prefrontal Cortex, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Director: X of Operation Prefrontal Cortex, Producer: Sara Basso of Operation Prefrontal Cortex, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Director: X of Operation Prefrontal Cortex, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Producer: Sara Basso of Operation Prefrontal Cortex, Director: X of Operation Prefrontal Cortex, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Co-Founder: Danell Adams of Operation Prefrontal Cortex, Director: X of Operation Prefrontal Cortex, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Operation Prefrontal Cortex

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